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Promoters try to drum up interest in Challenger Learning Center

The promoters of a Challenger Learning Center for downtown Lockport took another shot at getting their idea off the launching pad last week.

The educators and others on the board invited local officials to a reception Thursday to try to drum up interest in a project which has been slow to attract funding. They have about $300,000 in hand, but need more than $1 million more to get moving.

The local organization, affiliated with a national chain that has more than 50 locations, aims to open a facility that would offer high-tech space simulations and hands-on science training aimed at middle school students.

But it also would have a fun component, including a portable planetarium, that would be of interest to visitors during weekends and summers.

"You have the contacts. You have the friends," board member Joseph Steinmetz told a small audience that included Mayor Michael W. Tucker, two Niagara County legislators, and two board members of the Grigg-Lewis Foundation.

"If we can use people like you to get in front of major corporations, we'll be successful," said Steinmetz, coordinator of instructional and curriculum services for the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

"We're trying hard to turn this place around. We think you're a perfect fit for what you're going to do here," Tucker said.

Legislator Anthony J. Nemi, I-Lockport, said there are three ways Challenger could qualify for county aid.

As a not-for-profit planning to create some jobs, they could apply to the county Industrial Development Agency; as a tourism project, they could seek Niagara River Greenway money; and as an economic development project, the county could consider allocating some of its Seneca Niagara Casino money.

Cattaraugus County did that last month for a Challenger Center at St. Bonaventure University, which is to open this month, seven years after first being proposed.

"Anything we can do for them, we'd be glad to," Nemi said.

Steinmetz said BOCES intends to get involved and "bring a lot of economic clout to the piece."

The lion's share of the Lockport group's funds so far came from a $250,000 state grant lined up by State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane. Steinmetz said small corporate contributions so far have come from Ingram Micro, Northrop Grumman, Moog and Mentholatum.

Kathy M. Michaels, executive director of the local board, said the Lockport facility, to be installed in the Old Post Office, 1 East Ave., would attract schools from Erie and Orleans counties as well as Niagara.

Norman Sinclair, a retired banker who serves on the Grigg-Lewis board, asked the organizers several tough questions about finding operational funding once the project is built.

But Grigg-Lewis already has given the project $50,000, Regional Director Martin Schwartz said. "A foundation should ask questions like that," he added.

Schwartz said operating revenue will come from the center's use.

"We can have corporate training. We can have birthday parties under the planetarium," suggested Carole Ann Northway of Buffalo, a Challenger board member.

The notion of a local Challenger Center goes back some 15 years, said Michaels, a retired teacher. After striking out in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, the group began considering Lockport in 2006.

Steinmetz said they saw a tie-in with the mandated fifth-grade local history curriculum that often results in local schools making field trips to the Erie Canal locks, two blocks from the Old Post Office. Schools could make a full day of it with a stop in the Challenger "Mission Control" simulator, he said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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